Nixon on the Beach


John Adams, composer of Nixon in China

Nixon on the Beach”? I saw the High Definition Metropolitan Opera broadcast of John Adams’ Nixon in China at the Beach Cinemas, my favourite Toronto theatre.  The Beach Cinemas actually have voicemail, and call you back with the most personalized service of any local cinema.  While it is meant as a joke to speak of “Nixon on the beach, ” I came out of the theatre on a brilliant sunny afternoon, looking at the expanse of water immediately to the south in Lake Ontario.  I felt wonderful.

While Nixon on the Beach is also an allusion to Philip Glass – a personal favourite  and the other great minimalist opera composer of the past quarter century, e.g. Einstein on the Beach (1975)—after  seeing Nixon in China I’m wondering if I need to revisit my earlier opinion.  As I talk about the performance I saw broadcast from the Met today, I’ll reflect on both the production and the work, evidence that there’s a new (minimalist) sheriff in town.  Famous as Glass has been, none of his operas are so easily intelligible as Nixon in China; and having said that, i believe it’s safe to predict that Adams’ popularity will continue to rise.

Here’s how I understand the three acts of the opera

  • Act I is one of optimism at this great moment in history, including Nixon’s fascination with the magic of the event, in a segment beginning with his repetition of the word “news” over and over.  The Mao we meet in the second scene is more philosopher than politician.
  • Act II takes us deeper into China, first with Pat Nixon’s face-to-face encounters with the people, then at a surreal opera-within-the-opera where the real Madame Mao shows us her true (darker) colours.
  • Act III, on the last night of the visit, is on a personal scale, concerning the juxtaposition of past and future.  Each of the leaders reminisces with his wife, while Premier Chou En-Lai ponders the future

I came to the broadcast with some trepidations, having read a number of complaints about the singing by James Maddalena, who happens to have originated the role of Nixon almost a quarter of a century ago (the opera premiered in 1987).  That leads us to the first, and possibly the most remarkable thing about Nixon in China.

Maddalena did not sound as though he’d be comfortable singing Verdi or Rossini anytime soon.  But what of that?  Maddalena nailed Nixon perfectly: in his manner, his look and his sound.  When you think about it, Nixon’s loss to Kennedy in the 1960 electoral debate was all about style.  Where JFK was cool on camera, Nixon sweated under the lights, just like any average guy.  That’s Nixon.  To portray him in an opera surely is to check your virtuosity at the door.  A polished Nixon would be a misrepresentation, if not an out and out oxymoron.  And so, while it’s true that Maddalena didn’t sound great, his sound was perfect for Nixon.

And so it is, in different ways for each of the characters:

  • Mao Tse-Tung is a heldentenor, declaiming powerfully and sometimes ironically, sung by Robert Brubaker. While this may seem odd for the frail old man we see onstage, there’s nothing frail about his ideas or their impact.
  • His wife Madame Mao is a ferocious coloratura soprano who dominates the stage whenever she is present, flawlessly sung by Kathleen Kim.

While these figures seem to push the action of the opera, just as they were agents for change in the world, two other characters represent the passionate side:

  • Pat Nixon is a soprano who sings lyrical lines, and appears to be a bit like Richard Nixon’s conscience, or at least an influence upon her husband to bring out a warmer side of him.  Janis Kelly’s Pat Nixon is a sympathetic witness to the Chinese people, and an uncooperative onlooker to the Revolutionary Ballet; her refusal to mutely sit in the audience electrifies the scene, and galvanizes Madame Mao.
  • Chou En-Lai, the Chinese Prime Minister, presents the comparable reflections to those of Pat Nixon, in the person of Russell Braun’s smooth and eloquent baritone, including the remarkable summing up at the end of the opera, when he asks “How much of what we did was good”?

I believe Alice Goodman’s libretto is strongly influenced by two prominent textual sources:

  • Mao’s “Little Red Book” was at one time a best-seller, known as Sayings of Chairman Mao.  This book was a series of aphorisms about proper behaviour in the world of Communist China.
  • The philosopher Confucius has long been known as a source, if not the traditional source of Chinese wisdom

Curiously, the libretto often breaks into streams of brilliant little aphorisms, as if we’re suddenly listening to a recitation of the little red book.  And at one point, after a comment about Confucius, Mao, Madame Mao and her followers explode into a wonderfully ironic denunciation of Confucius, in a series of aphorisms.  At this moment it’s as though we’re being treated to a fit of Confucius against Confucius.  At that moment I couldn’t help but notice how the Little Red Book is indebted to Confucius, a fact that clearly wasn’t lost on Goodman.

Nixon in China begins as though it were the sequel to the Patrice Chereau Ring, which ends (after The Twilight of the Gods) with a stage full of people staring into the audience.  Is it just a coincidence?  The revolution has happened, and there they are, the People’s Army, singing and looking the audience in the eye.

BIG ARRIVAL: Janis Kelly, far left, as Pat Nixon, Teresa S. Herold as Mao’s second secretary, James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Ginger Costa Jackson as Mao’s first secretary and Russell Braun as Chou En-Lai. (Photos By Ken Howard/metropolitan Opera)

In the Metropolitan opera production, a second-generation interpretation from director Peter Sellars, and conducted by the composer himself, there is a strong sense of additional depth.  This is especially evident at the end, where Chou En-Lai is now shown in the process of dying from undiagnosed pancreatic cancer, an important piece of subtext that baritone Russell Braun revealed to us during the intermission.  Chou alone of those onstage muses on the meaning of what they’ve been doing, then issues stoic lines bearing additional poignancy because of the physical subtext:

Just before dawn the birds begin,
The warblers who prefer the dark,
The cage-birds answering.  To work!
Outside this room the chill of grace
Lies heavy on the morning grass.

I’m looking forward to comparing the Met’s interpretation with the Canada Opera Company’s import production directed by James Robinson.  The encore broadcast of the Met producion is four weeks away, on Saturday March 12th.

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4 Responses to Nixon on the Beach

  1. Ivy says:

    Hi Leslie, thanks for your thoughtful review. I missed Nixon in China and was bummed about not seeing it. About James Maddalena … well this is a bit of gossip but I heard from the ushers that he was having serious issues during rehearsals with illness and general trouble, and they were considering pulling him out of the run altogether. Apparently he’s been very sick, and the role is punishing. I don’t know how it would have been different with an understudy, but … a bit of “insider” info I heard.

  2. barczablog says:

    Thanks for the comments Ivy and the inside info. While Maddalena reportedly hasn’t been at his best I believe it was tolerable in the high definition broadcast. As i didn’t pay top dollar for my seat in a movie theatre, my standards are likely different from those at Lincoln Centre, who screamed bloody murder. Ha: how ironic that we run into politics backstage at this opera.

  3. William Pearce says:

    At first I thought the favorable review was tongue-in-cheek, because the Met Nixon in China this weekend was so unbelievably boring and dreadful. The music itself was not so bad, though tedious and static, as the minimalist music usually is. The libretto was utter nonsense, incoherent and silly, and the whole thing was stultifying boring. Donal Henahan was certainly right in his original 1987 review of the world premiere of this opera, that it set a new standard of interminable boredom. The last act was the worst, with its gratuitous vulgarity. What a fiasco! – I think that Sellars and Adams have worked a huge fraud on the public and are probably secretly laughing about it.

    • barczablog says:

      It’s a matter of taste. I’ve been having this conversation for literally decades on several fronts. For example, a good friend who’s also a critic spent considerable verbiage arguing that Satyagraha was no good (“nothing happens”). Your use of the word boredom is one I can’t argue. Boredom, like beauty, is entirely in the eye/ear of the beholder; i pride myself on never being bored, so unfortunately i am not the most helpful person. How could anyone be bored with all that pulsing life onstage, in the orchestral texture, in the interplay between personal lives and history enacted onstage? My eyes were popping out of my head watching the broadcast on Saturday. I went to grab a burger at the Harvey’s beside the theatre, then went home to write my review. I was unable to sleep until well after 1:00 am Sunday morning, because my head was still pulsing with the music, music that admittedly makes some people crazy with its repeated patterns.

      I recall another critic claiming that Glass wrote this way because he was incapable of writing the other way (presumably 12-tone, which was much more in fashion in the early 80s), reminding me of arguments raised a very long time ago against abstract painters, as if representation were the only real & legitimate art. I really didn’t “get” Jackson Pollock until I went to the Albright Knox Gallery in nearby Buffalo NY (nearby to Toronto of course); until that time i felt very uncomfortable talking about abstract art. When some people claim to like something, which leaves others cold, naturally the skeptics have every right to claim it’s like the Emperor’s New Clothes, that there’s really nothing there and we’ve been fooled.

      I won’t insult you by suggesting you’re wrong. If two people view the same thing, and one comes away seeing meaning, and the other nonsense, it resembles a religious debate; the one who sees nothing transcendant may want to insist that the one who was moved is somehow delusional or victim of fraud. Hopefully you won’t insist that anyone be burned at the stake. But those are real dollars I am paying (to see the High Def broadcast, to see the opera in another production in Toronto, possibly to see the Toronto production again and perhaps when i see the high def encore March 12). Those were real tears on my face watching Russell Braun as Chou En Lai. NB, I DO believe that the way the opera ends in the Toronto production (haven’t seen it yet, but confirmed–with a friend who saw it– that the pancreatic cancer element is a new wrinkle for the Met production) will be far less interesting, likely to leave me cold.

      A monkey could not have written it, however. The orchestrations are very skillful. Madame Mao’s coloratura in Act II are very difficult, reminding me of the Queen of the Night (who is usually the scariest person onstage in Die Zauberfloete, as Madama Mao is in Nixon in China). I keep thinking i hear snatches from other compositions. It’s all in my head of course, and maybe it’s just wishful thinking. Wouldn’t you rather be someone coming away from the opera with a deep sense of satisfaction? Note, too, that when I spoke of a Adams displacing Glass for popularity (because in the 1980s and 90s Glass seemed to be ascendant and Adams to be undervalued) I never spoke of my own preference (and of course you haven’t asked and probably don’t care) . In fact, I see Glass as a purist in comparison, while Adams is a pragmatist. Nixon in China is intelligible in ways that Glass’s portrait operas are not. Satyagraha is a work of great subtlety & poetry compared to Nixon in China, and in my opinion is the most spiritual opera ever written; but you have to be open to the work.

      Thank you for your comments.

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